In a ruling that may have implications (pdf) in Texas and across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision striking down two North Carolina congressional districts. The Court found that they were drawn on the basis of race without sufficient justification.
Following the Court’s decision, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez asked the parties in the Texas redistricting lawsuit to file briefs addressing the effects of the decision “on the various claims in the congressional and Texas House cases.” Briefs are due June 6. Rodriguez also directed the state to consider whether it would “voluntarily undertake redistricting in a special session.”
In 2011, the North Carolina legislature’s mapmakers added significant numbers of African-American voters to the districts, which were already represented by African-American representatives, and subtracted Anglo voters in order to give both an African-American majority. The state had argued that the racial majorities were necessary to comply with Voting Rights Act, but the district court found that justification insufficient and erroneous.
The high court agreed. “North Carolina’s belief that it was compelled to redraw District 1 (a successful crossover district) as a majority-minority district thus rested on a pure error of law,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority. This portion of the SCOTUS ruling breaks no new ground and is not particularly controversial. In fact, it was a unanimous decision.
The portion striking down District 12, on the other hand, is more controversial, and the court affirmed the district court ruling in an odd 5-3 configuration (Justice Thomas with the majority, Justice Kennedy with the dissent). At its heart, this portion of the ruling explores the “conjoined polarization” of race and partisan politics. In essence, the court ruled that a state’s use of race as a proxy for partisanship may still run afoul of the VRA, even though race can be used to draw districts with sufficient justification. This may have the effect of bolstering claims, and pending cases, of partisan gerrymandering in districts where race and party are strongly correlated.
The SCOTUS ruling itself applies only to the congressional districts, but the state’s legislative districts were struck down last year. Plaintiffs argued that the districts were drawn through “predominant and unjustified use of race.” The state argued that the use of race was “reasonably necessary” to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. The judges agreed with plaintiffs but also found that the assembly did not act “in bad faith or with discriminatory intent.”
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